The Elephant and the Jewish Community

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A recent intriguing article about Roman Vishniac got me thinking well beyond him.

Vishniac, of course, was the famed photo-chronicler of pre-war Jewish Eastern Europe, whose 1983 collection “A Vanished World” is celebrated for its evocative portrayal of shtetl life, Jewish destitution, and religious Jews at home, work and study.

The article, by veteran journalist Alana Newhouse in The New York Times Magazine, focuses on the work of an assiduous researcher, Maya Benton, who has uncovered evidence that some of the narratives accompanying Vishniac’s photographs are unreliable; that what seem candid shots were likely posed; and that, as per the photographer’s assignment in the employ of the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish world he captured on film was a constricted one – a mere piece of a universe considerably larger, more diverse, more complex.

There were, after all, not only frightened, disheveled and poor children in pre-war Poland but happy, well-adjusted and well-off ones; not only cheder boys but progeny of parents whose ideals were more cosmopolitan than religious; not only study halls but cabarets; not only babushkas and housewives but debutantes and artists.

Whether Vishniac’s ignoring of parts of the Jewish world he roamed in the 1930s makes him some sort of artistic mugger is an open question; all artists, in the end, choose their foci. But it’s hard to argue with Ms. Newhouse’s contention that the photographer’s constrained spotlight on Eastern European Jewry’s religious and impoverished elements (largely the same) presents a less than complete picture.

It is a real one, to be sure. But communities, in the end, are like elephants, their observers the proverbial blind men, one touching an ear and concluding that the beast is floppy and thin, the other feeling a leg and imagining the subject tree-like, a third encountering its trunk and pronouncing the pachyderm a python.

American Jewry is a good example. The air of one part of that population is permeated by academic achievement, economic success and social concerns. It constitutes a parallel universe, though, to that of the Orthodox community, which extols Torah study and observance, and breathes an atmosphere of religious tradition.

In fact, and sadly, the two worlds barely acknowledge one another. Many Jews who define themselves as non-Orthodox or unaffiliated tend to view those who consider their Jewishness paramount as relics, either amusing or threatening, depending on the day and circumstance.

And all too many Orthodox Jews, especially those of us in the more insular haredi world, can be oblivious to the large mass of our distant relatives beyond the physical and conceptual ghettos we inhabit. And when we do think of them, we often see them essentially as objects of “outreach.” A laudable goal, to be sure, born of the desire to share something precious, but qualitatively removed from the deeper recognition that they are worthy of our concern and love as fellow Jews even if they never choose to live like us.

Back, though, to the elephant. A photographer could easily produce a volume portraying one American Jewish world or the other. Only a book, however, that portrays both (and likely several others in-between) could rightfully lay claim to the ambitious title “The American Jewish Community.”

Even within each part of the American Jewish scene, a constricted focus can be misleading. Some non-Orthodox Jews profess atheism or agnosticism; but others ponder G-d and their purposes on earth more than do some Orthodox-by-rote. And so it would be a disservice to truth to present either sub-group as emblematic of the non-Orthodox whole.

As it would to imagine, inspired by some popular media, that the Orthodox world is rife with white-collar criminals and slumlords, or harbors a disproportionate number of child abusers. We Orthodox surely have our share of scoundrels, knaves and hypocrites. But examining the dirt under the elephant’s toenails conveys nothing at all of the animal’s majesty. As a whole, measured by the vast majority of its members, the Orthodox community is precisely what unprejudiced observers come to see: a world of broad and deep religious dedication, charity and kindness.

Assuming that a group stereotype is a group description is the essence of prejudice. As the Vishniac article reminds us, even the most compelling snapshots can mislead. Ears and trunk and feet are not, in the end, the elephant.

© 2010 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use, sharing and publication, provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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Yehoshua Friedman
5 years 4 months ago

Yoel B ends his comment with Maya Benton’s question of why people are attached to the story of the frum Jews to the exclusion of the variety of the unskewed story. I think it is because people wanted to remember what was lost. Polish Jews who were part of European culture were not so much different from the mainstream of Joint donors. The Jews of America wanted a connection to history and an awareness of the other in Jewish history. This is to their credit. The Hollywood Jews want to airbrush the other when it comes to Jews while accentuating it regarding other groups. This is to their detriment.

Yoel B
5 years 4 months ago

Vishniac did take pictures showing a fuller spectrum of life than the ones that got published. But according to the Times article, his iconic images (which included photos falsely captioned and cropped to be especially heartrending) were commissioned by the Joint for fundraising purposes. It must have been the first time that liberties were taken with the truth in order to raise money. I’m shocked, shocked. However, the published images tend to be a pretty good reflection of the mythology of pre-war Jewish religiosity, if slanting that myth to open wallets.
Alana Newhouse concluded with Maya Benton’s trenchant words which, unsurprisingly, Rabbi Shafran ignored(and why no link to the story?)

“What’s interesting to me is less Vishniac’s tendency toward mythology than the Jewish need to have those mythologies and the attachment they have to them, even in the face of evidence to the contrary,” Benton says. “Why are people so attached to the other story? The real story is so much better.”

Miriam - with an S
5 years 4 months ago

The metaphor to the elephant is clever, but ultimately the parallel is not very parallel: On the one hand Roman Vishniac gave us a view into the pre-war Orthodox world that stirs empathy, on the other nowadays the public at large see a view of Orthodoxy today. Which one should we be discounting?

Perhaps we just need more PR via artistic media. Every few years there’s such a movie (Stranger Among Us, Ushpizin – hopefully some of my fellow commenters are more up-to-date). Maybe a bestseller written by someone other than Naomi Regan….

Dr. E
5 years 4 months ago

My favorite point of Rabbi Shafran’s is “And all too many Orthodox Jews, especially those of us in the more insular haredi world, can be oblivious to the large mass of our distant relatives beyond the physical and conceptual ghettos we inhabit. And when we do think of them, we often see them essentially as objects of ‘outreach.’ A laudable goal, to be sure, born of the desire to share something precious, but qualitatively removed from the deeper recognition that they are worthy of our concern and love as fellow Jews even if they never choose to live like us.”

I could not have said it better myself! This is precisely what bothers me about today’s “Kiruv industry”. As one friend of mine in Jewish education/outreach once aptly that his mission is not “kiruv rechokim” but “kiruv levavos”. There is a world of difference between the two approaches and it seems that Rabbi Shafran might be in agreement. The Chareidi world needs to have more of an an appreciation of other Jews (whether non-Orthodox, non-observant and yes, even non-Chareidi) as having more in common as Jews and as human beings. No agendas of self-validation and adding to the ranks of the believers.

I know that this was not the main thesis, but I could not resist identifying a golden nugget when I saw it.

dr. bill
5 years 4 months ago

I honestly find this troubling. You write: “American Jewry is a good example. The air of one part of that population is permeated by academic achievement, economic success and social concerns. It constitutes a parallel universe, though, to that of the Orthodox community, which extols Torah study and observance, and breathes an atmosphere of religious tradition.
In fact, and sadly, the two worlds barely acknowledge one another.”

If orthodox means chareidi – i think you are on reasonable ground. But to those who find the Rav ztl’s adam I and II meaningful or “ger vetoshav” operative, the world’s are not parallel but necessarily intersecting. I would hope torah intersects the secular world and helps to provide it principles. I fear we have less of that than is needed and that is not a good thing but a source of constant chillul hashem. as I recall, (and i may be mistaken) the rav’s less famous essay on the “sacred and the profane” addresses this as well, much more fundamentally. whatsmore, even R. hirsch ztl would find your formulation troubling, IMHO.